Photo by TriStar Pictures, 1989
Article by Ryan Wilson

The recent death of famed director Sidney Lumet has caused me to shelve my regularly scheduled review this week. The sophomoric antics of Your Highness just can’t trump discussing the life and work of a master filmmaker.

What stands out when looking back at Lumet’s career is how prolific he was. Between directing his first film 12 Angry Men in 1957 to his final film in 2007, Lumet helmed nearly one movie per year, sometimes two movies per year. He successfully worked in every genre imaginable.

Lumet learned to pace himself in the early days of television, back when live plays were broadcast each week on the major networks. Before he even got to film, Lumet directed over 200 televised performances. These were the sort of productions that, for budgetary reasons, offered only one set piece, so the acting and the dialogue, confined to a tight space, both limited and elevated the drama. Through these constraints Lumet learned how to do more with less, a sort of filmmaking economy long forgotten.

12 Angry Men easily reflects television’s influence on Lumet. Confined to the jury room of a murder case on the hottest day of the year, tensions build as conflicting personalities badger each other into seeing the case, and the subsequent world, their own way. Henry Fonda gives one of his best performances, as the strong-willed humanist of the crowd, but the real star is Lumet, who places the camera in every conceivable angle within the room. As a result, the space seems to expand rather than contract. 12 Angry Men is still the model for this kind of film drama. It’s also used often by academics looking to exhibit examples of human behavior. If you’ve taken an Interpersonal Communications class in the last three decades, chances are you’ve seen it.

Lumet raised tensions within tight spaces again in 1964’s Fail-Safe, this time heightening the stakes. Rather than just one man on trial, this time the frustrated men in the room had to solve a nuclear crisis at the height of the Cold War. I always think of Fail-Safe as Doctor Strangelove without the Strangelove, that is without the satire of Stanley Kubrick. Lumet’s handling of the scenario lacks Kubrick’s comedy, and because of this I always found it to be much more frightening.

By the 1970s, Lumet left his television roots behind, directing a number of diverse projects. Consider these five very different films within the five years that he made them: in 1974 he directed Agatha Christie’s traditional murder mystery Murder on The Orient Express, then in 1975 he directed the very nontraditional Dog Day Afternoon, in which a Al Pacino robs a bank for his homosexual lover. In 1976 came Lumet’s masterpiece Network, a very large story about media and society’s ills. But he followed that up in 1977 with the very intimate Equus about a young man’s sexual obsession with horses. Then only a year later he directed Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in The Wiz, a loud and funky-flavored Wizard of Oz musical.

How does one go from the genius of Network to the monumental flop of The Wiz in just the span of one year’s work? It seems incredible to me. But that’s Sidney Lumet, a workman-like director willing to try new projects. He could make a very gritty cop drama like Serpico, but also touch us with a heartbreaking holocaust tale like 1965’s The Pawnbroker.

I’d like to recommend two of Lumet’s lesser-known films. The first is the very entertaining Deathtrap, released in 1982. It’s a thriller about two competing playwrights, one older and one younger. The younger student is played by Christopher Reeves, who is hitting his prime. His mentor is played by Michael Caine, who is suffering from writer’s block. Together they arrange to collaborate on a project, but we soon find that they each have alternative motives involving taking the credit and taking the other man’s love interest. The story keeps us alert with various twists, but it's Lumet’s direction, taking place largely in one living room, that makes the story so riveting.

My other recommendation is 1988’s Running on Empty, in which Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti play former Vietnam War protestors who are on the lam after bombing a napalm factory during the war. They believed the factory was empty, but they ended up blinding and paralyzing a janitor working the late shift. Along with living with their guilt, the two must raise their sons, who are getting old enough to ask questions and form their own opinions. The family is constantly changing their names and location. The late River Phoenix, in his best performance, plays the oldest son, who is sick of running and wants a life for himself. What’s so impressive about the film is Lumet’s patience as director. He let’s the issues of the film build until they crescendo, with the parents saying goodbye to Phoenix forever. They’ll keep running, but he’ll not be with them. It’s one of the most emotional endings you’ll ever see in a movie.

This scene says everything you need to know about Sydney Lumet. He was not a flashy director, not an auteur whose work you’d immediately recognize, but his body of work stands the test of time. He was an expert at studying our behavior in order to film it simply and honestly. Sadly, his kind may be a dying breed.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011